Did You Notice? … The Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series playoff picture is taking shape? It’s hard to believe but we’re already eight races into 2019. If the regular season was just one big race, stage one would be wrapping up sometime during the middle of Saturday night’s showdown at Richmond Raceway.
What do we know so far? It looks like the field can be split into five distinct groups.
Four of these drivers have already won, combining for all eight Cup victories to date. It’s the smallest number of winners to this point since the current playoff system was adopted in 2014. That quartet clearly has nothing to worry about during a season where a handful of teams have superior speed. At this pace, we’ll have 12-13 Cup winners, well under the 16-driver postseason cutoff. If you win… you’re in.
Harvick sits winless with Stewart-Haas Racing but is already 115 points ahead of 17th-place man Erik Jones. Pre-race inspection failure may also have been the only handicap keeping him from winning last weekend at Bristol. A pass-through penalty at the start, followed by a tire problem left him four laps down at one point but Harvick still managed to get back on the lead lap. In the process, he had so much speed he came from midpack on a restart, passed all the lead lap cars and unlapped himself with equal tires.
It’s clear Harvick’s got the speed to win, and win soon, even though SHR appears a small tick behind where they were in 2018. 22 races won in the past five years means he’s not dropping out barring injury or catastrophic points penalty.
Should-Be-Ins… That Should Be Dark Horses Come September (4)
Each member of this quartet has suffered through some difficult circumstances but have already built a comfortable playoff cushion over 17th. It would take twice the obstacles they’ve incurred plus an avalanche of catastrophic luck for them to miss the field. Instead? They might be the guy who crashes the party at Homestead-Miami Speedway you’re not thinking about right now.
Blaney has had any and every type of bad luck moment imaginable. His Team Penske teammates have won three times while he’s earned four finishes outside the top 20; two of those were DNFs out of his control. Leading 358 laps on the year already, it’s hard to see Blaney not winning considering Penske has asserted themselves as the fastest Fords.
Truex, meanwhile, is with a new team in Joe Gibbs Racing after Furniture Row Racing closed up shop. He and crew chief Cole Pearn are navigating their way through a new system. People point to the fact they’re winless but the duo sits seventh in the standings; that’s the highest for any MENCS driver with a new organization. Only Penske and JGR have won thus far in 2019; it’s also difficult to see Truex not putting the puzzle pieces together. If anything, this group should be rounding into form at the right time come summer and early fall.
Busch and Elliott are the two top Chevy drivers this season, which isn’t saying much. Both of them have a runner-up finish on a short track, smaller ovals where they can mask their speed deficiencies better versus Ford and Toyota. Busch, at age 40, appears ready to have a career renaissance and has sliced through the field each week despite a mediocre average start of 20.1. That’s just 23rd among full-time drivers and over three positions worse than anyone inside the top 16. Such an ability to pass with a handling package where, um, passing has often proven impossible bodes well for him.
Elliott meanwhile has come to life after a sluggish start. All of his 122 laps led have occurred in the past three races; his average start of 9.1 is the best for any Chevrolet. Top-10 starts are good protection when your car’s a step below the competition during long green-flag runs. And don’t you think, at some point, someone is going to put the Camaro conundrum to bed? Chances are it’s the manufacturer’s Most Popular (and one of its most talented) 20-somethings with millions in Hendrick Motorsports support and engineering.
Playoff Field Fillers (2)
Both these drivers made the Round of 8 last year and remain formidable for SHR. Bowyer nearly won Bristol last weekend before late-race contact with Logano. Almirola won the pole at Atlanta and might have won without a speeding penalty.
But these drivers, by and large, seem a step behind Harvick and top-tier counterparts at other teams. Their race wins are not guaranteed, a combination of both luck and remaining oh-so-close-but-can’t-close-the-deal-when-it-matters. In the end, they seem destined for that 8th-to-12th place point range, potentially without a trip to Victory Lane. It’s not at all a bad place to be; it just makes them vulnerable enough that if there’s a weird series of winners on the road courses, at Daytona in July, Indianapolis in September… you never know.
On The Bubble (9)
Here’s where the battle for the postseason will come. Assuming no upsets, these nine drivers will spend the bulk of the summer competing for five spots.
Some surprising names sit on this list. Johnson and Larson, you would think, are the frontrunners to earn two of the five spots. One man is a seven-time champion while the other most people think should be a MENCS champion already. Larson clearly has the talent; however, pit road mistakes and on-track incidents have defined his difficult year with CGR. Outside of Atlanta in February, a race Larson could have won without a penalty, the No. 42 team hasn’t led another lap or earned a single top-five finish.
Jones, you’d think, has an edge on the third bubble slot considering the speed JGR has overall this season. Parity throughout multi-car organizations is better than ever; gone are the days where a Danica Patrick is considerably slower than three other teammates. Jones also got a big vote of confidence this week when JGR made it clear they plan to keep him long-term once Christopher Bell moves up in 2020.
The other two playoff bids are completely up for grabs. Dillon and Bowman made the postseason last year but neither one has particularly impressed in 2019. Dillon’s postseason bid last season was secured on a last-lap Daytona 500 win; he hasn’t finished higher than 10th all year. Bowman hasn’t even finished that high while failing to lead a lap and crashing out of arguably his best track (ISM Raceway).
Byron is an intriguing choice, feast-or-famine in his first year working with Johnson’s seven-time championship crew chief Chad Knaus. He’s earned just one top-10 finish but led four of eight races as Knaus hasn’t been afraid to use pit strategy to gain track position. Byron’s solid qualifying efforts (three top-five starts, including one pole) leave him well positioned to steal a win too, under the right circumstances.
Newman and Suarez are both overachieving in their new rides. Newman earned his first top-10 finish at Bristol driving the No. 6 Ford; by comparison, it took 34 races for that car to earn a top 10 last year. Suarez has a streak of three straight top-10 finishes, consistency he achieved just once in 2018. He’s also kept his nose clean following a season-opening Daytona 500 wreck.
Stenhouse, of course, is the favorite later this month at Talladega Superspeedway. But no one knows who’s got the edge in the first race without restrictor plates in Cup since 1987. He has yet to win outside those superspeedway races and has struggled to turn qualifying speed into full-race finishes.
These drivers all have no realistic chance to make the postseason on points. But if the right circumstances came their way, either on a road course, short track or superspeedway they could pull a miracle upset.
The best hopes out of the group are Menard, DiBenedetto and McDowell. Menard could ride the coattails of his Team Penske alliance at a place like Daytona. Remember, he was leading the exhibition Advance Auto Parts Clash back in February before Johnson turned him.
DiBenedetto also had the race of his life at Daytona, leading the most laps before circumstances led to his involvement in a late wreck.
But the real sleeper is the man who made everyone mad after that race: McDowell. The Front Row Motorsports driver is good on the road courses, too, and has flashed a new on and off-track aggression this season. If he’s inside the top five, in position to win late… I think he won’t be afraid to do what’s needed to cash in.
Did You Notice? … Quick hits before taking off….
- NASCAR’s uncontrolled tire penalties are, simply put, spinning out of control. The second you’re playing semantics with a tire “outside arm’s length” that A) never rolled away and B) was never a safety issue on an empty pit road, officials are beginning to insert themselves for no reason. As I’ve said many times, name one sport who benefits when officiating becomes the center of attention. I know passing’s at a premium this season and NASCAR execs seem to think putting the hammer down on these nitpicky items pushes unpredictability. It does make life unpredictable… for the race fan unsure what they’ll do next after clicking off the TV remote.
- May Richmond Raceway be the last race we see with NASCAR using group qualifying. Momentum in a few short weeks has swung so far off the map I think it’s a matter of when… not if. My guess is they’ll take a long, hard look after Easter and make a decision entering Talladega Superspeedway. That’s the perfect time to make the switch considering superspeedways have been an exception to the rules in recent years anyway.
- Christopher Bell is going to be in Cup next year. That looks like a certainty, a move that could force difficult decisions to be made at SHR. But what about third-place point man Cole Custer? Another win or two and the four-car organization there is in the same boat.